Those Reviled Perfectly Legal Employee Dress Codes

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Workers around the world shared a good chuckle Wednesday when the Wall Street Journal reported on the meticulous, 43-page dress code that banking giant UBS AG recently imposed on its retail branch employees in Switzerland.

Among the highlights: Women must button their jacket when standing, unbutton it when sitting. Men must tie knots that match the shape of their face and body. Women should wear "light makeup consisting of foundation, mascara and discreet lipstick" because doing so will "enhance your personality." Men who are graying shouldn't dye their hair because the "artificial color contrasts excessively with the actual age of your skin."

Short sleeves, cuff links, stubble, a preponderance of facial hair and jackets stored on wire hangers are verboten. Same goes for short socks that don't completely cover one's calves when seated. And garlic, onions and smoking at lunch are out of the question.

Dress Codes, Dress Codes, Everywhere

Of course, you don't have to look far to find other employers with excruciatingly detailed policies on how their workers should clothe and groom themselves. My inbox is filled with tidbits from workers whose employers have banned everything from red power suits to Dockers (not the pants style, just the brand) and enforced guidelines about jewelry, nail polish, sideburn length, skirt length and visible panty lines.

Take Charlotte, who worked at a large business services company in Oklahoma with a dress code that sounds like it was lifted from a "Mad Men" script.

"They still require women to wear skirt suits, nylons and heels," e-mailed Charlotte, who recently left the company and, like all workers interviewed for this column, didn't want her real name used. "Pants are not an option for women, even when traveling for business. How many times people mistook me for a flight attendant over the years!"

Then there's Natalia, whose dress code during her tenure with the estate of a well-known rock musician was unexpectedly unyielding.

"I expected a very laid-back, rock-n-roll-type atmosphere," Natalia said. "But the family was surprisingly conservative. We were required to wear nylons with skirts or dresses, and we could not wear denim. I would have expected those kinds of rules at a bank or a law firm, but the estate of one of the world's most famous rock stars? Not so much."

Heck, even the New York Yankees maintain a strict facial hair policy.

Yes, Virginia, They Can Make You Wear That

Denim devotees and facial hair fanatics might wonder whether they have to take such workplace regulations lying down. According U.S. legal experts, in most cases, if you intend to hang onto your job, the answer is yes.

"Employers don't need a logical reason for having a dress code," said business litigation attorney Eric Adams, a partner with the Tampa office of the firm Shutts & Bowen. "But they do have to have a business-related reason for it."

In addition, employers need to clearly communicate the company dress code to employees, enforce the code across the board and be willing to accommodate employees whose religious or ethnic beliefs clash with the dress code—for example, a Jew who wears a yarmulke, a Sikh who wears a beard or a Quaker who doesn't wear makeup.

But what about those time-warp-happy employers who ban their female staff from wearing pants? The directive to put on hose and a dress skirt every day may be hopelessly retro, but Adams said, it's legal.

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